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The question is not a arising in my capacity as an academic. I was recently reading a book, and I came across a claim that seemed dubious; so I wanted to find out whether it was accurate. I thought of contacting the author, but then I disovered that the author had been dead for a few years.

My question is, what is the appropriate thing to do in such a case, where the author is the only one who has the information necessary to verify a claim, and yet the author is deceased? Assuming you cared about it enough, would you contact the family of the author, to see if they had notes the author had used in writing the book, or is that impolite? What else can be done?

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    Fair question. I thought the title was overly casual given the subject matter, so I edited it a bit. Commented May 2, 2015 at 6:15
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    @scaaahu In this case the claim was that a story from Hindu mythology was mentioned in a particular Hindu scripture. But I've come across this problem in other contexts as well, for instance a claim that a particular theorem holds under certain conditions, without mentioning what those conditions are. The common property is that you have a claim which would be very easy to verify if you could pick the author's brain. Commented May 2, 2015 at 7:09
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    You mean something like "no three positive integers a, b, and c can satisfy the equation a^n + b^n = c^n for any integer value of n greater than two".
    – StrongBad
    Commented May 2, 2015 at 10:06
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    @StrongBad Well, Fermat's last theorem is different, because there you have something that at least in principle could be duplicated by other scholars. What I'm talking about would be if Fermat had written "I have found a proof that a^n + b^n never equals c^n, assuming certain conditions are satisfied. But stating those conditions or the proof would be too large for this margin." Similarly, in my case it's an author saying "I've found a quote in this Hindu scripture which I consider to be an allusion to the following story from Hindu mythology. But I won't tell you what quote I have in mind." Commented May 2, 2015 at 14:13
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    The best you can do is report it as a claim. Include the information/sources you have.
    – GEdgar
    Commented May 2, 2015 at 16:36

3 Answers 3

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Assuming you cared about it enough, would you contact the family of the author, to see if they had notes the author had used in writing the book, or is that impolite?

It's implausible that the author's files are well-organized and clear enough that a non-expert family member could easily answer your question. And unless the answer is dreadfully important, it seems inappropriate to ask whether you could fly into town and spend hours/days searching through any files the family possesses. (One can accumulate a large number of boxes of papers over the course of a career.) That could make sense if you were working on a major project about the author and the family was eager to help, but for an isolated question it feels like far too much of an imposition on the family.

If the family felt the files were likely to be of continuing academic or historical interest, then they may have donated them to a university library or archive (most likely at the university the author worked at, if any). I'd start by doing web searches to try to find out. If you can't find out online, you could enquire at the most likely university library.

Before trying to track down the author's files, it's worth convincing yourself that there's no other way to get an answer. For example, maybe the author is alluding to something well known among a certain community, or maybe the author supplied more details in a different publication. You could try ask online (e.g., on a suitable stack exchange site) and see what happens.

If the author worked with a collaborator or had a student who specialized in this topic, then they would be natural people to ask. You could also try asking another expert (e-mailing someone out of the blue will come across best if you give an explanation of how you have tried and failed to find the answer).

If nobody else knows and the author's files weren't formally archived anywhere, then I'm not sure how much more you can do. The author's information may simply be lost and will have to be reconstructed from scratch.

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  • Would it be appropriate to ask the family if the author's papers were formally archived (in case you have no idea what institution would have archived them)? Commented May 2, 2015 at 15:42
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    I think this gets at the importat difference between academic and non-academic authors. Academics usually have colleagues and other people interested in the topic, where as non academics often work in isolation and write for consumers.
    – StrongBad
    Commented May 2, 2015 at 15:52
  • I'd spend some time trying to track them down first. For example, when I do a web search for "r h bing archive" I quickly find lib.utexas.edu/taro/utcah/00222/cah-00222.html. If the web has no information on where someone's papers might be archived, then that's a bad sign. However, if the papers seem important enough to be archived somewhere but you just can't find them, then asking the family doesn't seem unreasonable to me. It's certainly less of an imposition than asking whether you can search files in their possession, and they may be pleased that you are interested. Commented May 2, 2015 at 15:52
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Dealing with a claim by a dead author is exactly like dealing with a claim by a live author who isn't answering emails. Or, for that matter, dealing with a claim by an author who is answering emails, but not to your satisfaction.

In science, no single statement is the end of the story. If a statement can be backed up, then it should be backed up by some combination of other scholars and the universe at large. If you can't find sufficient justification in the text, or the sources, or other scholars working in the same area, then it is appropriate for you to treat the statement as an unjustified assertion.

That doesn't mean it's wrong... but it does mean that you shouldn't depend on it to be correct.

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    I'm not asking whether unjustified assertions should be blindly accepted. I'm asking, if you're in a situation where the author is the only one who has the information necessary to verify his claim, and you desperately want to verify his claim, what should you do? Should you reach out to his family, or what? Commented May 2, 2015 at 14:05
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    @KeshavSrinivasan No, you should not bother the family! If the author is the only one who can possibly verify the claim, then the claim has no scientific validity.
    – jakebeal
    Commented May 2, 2015 at 15:21
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    No, I'm not talking about a claim for which the only possible evodence is the author's word that it's true. I'm talking about a claim which can be independently verified, but in order to independently verify it you need a piece of information that only the author has. So assuming the author had some important piece of information that you desperately want, and the author is deceased, what should you do? Commented May 2, 2015 at 15:25
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    You are confusing together two independent cases: either 1) You want to know whether Author X was correct that Scripture Y refers to Story Z, or 2) You want to know about references between (a possibly restricted set) of Hindu scripture and Hindu mythology. If it is Case #1, you're out of luck: you can no more obtain this information than Joe McCarthy's list of communists. If it is Case #2, then you're just going to have to do the hard work yourself (or find others who are doing it). But why would you actually want to know Case #1?
    – jakebeal
    Commented May 2, 2015 at 15:33
  • So @jakebeal ... would you consider answering emails sufficient to show proof of liveliness, or is it merely necessary? ;)
    – tonysdg
    Commented Dec 11, 2015 at 21:41
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There is a very good case of this in Korea. A researcher had written a paper, claiming to have found a 3rd system, the Primo Vascular System, which can carry cancer and other things. They were able to dye it and trace it.

However, he died, and no one else knew what he was doing. His paper also did not explain well enough for anyone to recreate it.

So how do you deal with it? As Anonymous Mathematician points out, unless you consider this a monumental breakthrough, there is little you can do. In South Korea, Universities and Funding agencies agreed with someone (maybe like you), that it is worth millions of dollars to invest in recreating this system.

Reference: http://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2013/587827/

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